In new book, UChicago scholars confront white supremacy across American life

Historians bring together essays that offer insight into white power violence

Characterizing white supremacy and putting it in context can be complicated, but a new book co-edited by two University of Chicago historians seeks to do just that.

“Some in the white power movement—neo-Nazis, Klansmen and others—openly espouse racist beliefs and conduct racist violence,” said Asst. Prof. Kathleen Belew. “But events like the Jan. 6 insurrection also involved people who would not themselves identify as white supremacists, but who espouse viewpoints that nevertheless uphold white supremacy.”

Identifying and untangling these ideas is one of the goals of A Field Guide to White Supremacy, which Belew co-edited with Ramón A. Gutiérrez, the Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of U.S. History.

Published Oct. 26, the book brings together essays from some of the nation’s leading thinkers on race, violence and systems of exclusion—including Jamelle Bouie, Rebecca Solnit and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

“Ramón and I realized that the way academic experts usually talk about racial violence, inequality and white supremacy is often very siloed,” said Belew, one of the nation’s leading experts on white power violence.

What was needed, she and Gutiérrez decided, was a public resource that provided background information for a more general readership about the social, legal and historical context of white power violence and racial inequality. They edited A Field Guide to White Supremacy in part to help start a conversation about how to frame and tackle these issues constructively.

In the following Q&A, Belew explains the rationale behind the book and her hopes for its impact, as well as her thoughts on the future of American democracy.

Why did you decide to call the book a ‘field guide’?

“Field guide” here means resources and tools for seeing and identifying white supremacy. It refers not only to the individual beliefs that some people hold, but the broader systems, histories and mechanisms by which racial inequality continues in the U.S. in 2021.

The beliefs and actions of individual people collide with broader systems that shape the way our society functions. Even when racist belief may not be present on a case-by-case basis—for example, in property ownership or maternal mortality—legal and social collusion have been involved in shaping those conditions in an unjust way.

So, this volume is really trying to get at those intersections. We’re not trying to use the same brush to paint people who are openly racist and people who benefit from racial disparity and systems of inequality, but to articulate that these are related issues. There’s no way to confront one without thinking about the other.

The Jan. 6 insurrection happened while you were compiling this book. What was your reaction?

For me, Jan. 6 represented a collision of three different currents. One of those is organized white power activism, which I wrote about in my earlier book, Bring the War Home. Another current is QAnon, which is new and which has achieved deep radicalization at a speed and by mechanisms that we have not seen before, so I’m reluctant as a historian to say much more about it. The third current is the Trump base, the “Stop the Steal” rally-goers.

That third current is what this book can really help people understand. It’s not that they are all white power activists, but we have to be attuned to the way that extremist ideas are coming into the mainstream—and sometimes, even into our halls of governance. Our elected officials are now, in some cases, affiliated with some of these ideas. So, we have to be thinking about the people who came into politics through Jan. 6, and what the next steps might be for a movement that condones an act like that.

How did you go about choosing the essays that would be featured in the book?

We wanted to feature both academic scholarship and journalism that would be accessible to people outside academia. A number of these pieces came out of a conference that Ramón and I held at the University of Chicago in 2019.

After that, we thought about what was missing from the book. I reached out to Rebecca Solnit—who I’m a huge fan of—to see if we could get permission to reprint an essay of hers that articulates the way that patriarchal violence underwrites white supremacy. Jamelle Bouie’s piece ran in Slate before he was a New York Times columnist, but I remember reading it at the time and being blown away by his account of the opening of the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Overall, we wanted to present a panorama of the different places in American life where people are exposed to systemic inequality, violence, exclusion and partial citizenship. We wanted to bring all those together in order to confront this as a set of problems, instead of treating them each as one-offs.

The book is broadly about white supremacy, but it delves into other forms of systemic inequality. Why did you adopt that approach?

The title came from the essays and not the other way around. If you dig deeper into many of these issues—for example, violence against LGBT+ people, like the Pulse nightclub shooting which is the subject of an essay in the book—it becomes clear that violence against people who are not straight or cis-presenting rests inside the broader white, patriarchal power structure. That power structure is attached to all these other histories, which is why we are trying to bring them into conversation.

The book includes both your writing and that of many contributors. What did you write about?

I’m a scholar of white power violence, so my contribution to this volume is an essay that dispels the myth of “lone wolf attacks.” When we read about antisemitic violence at the Tree of Life Synagogue for example, or anti-Black violence in Charleston, we don’t think about the fact that those gunmen were united behind a white power ideology.

They had the same set of social convictions, and the same phrases in their manifestos. But when communities of survivors hear the story framed in the context of white power ideology, they might recognize that they have something in common, and they have a way to think about a coalition. So I think that there’s something really politically hopeful in bringing these stories—although they’re difficult—together into the same volume.

What impact do you hope the book will have?

One of the book’s concrete takeaways is an understanding that many kinds of inequality are intertwined; and the fact that the founding idea of the United States as a collection of radical promises—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—was never intrinsically meant for everyone. At first, it was only white, free, property-owning men.

Over time, we have included more and more people in that project, but if we want to be serious about extending full citizenship to everyone, there’s work left to do. Because those categories have never expanded on their own, or through magnanimity: They’ve been extended through organization and connection between people.

What is your outlook on American democracy, given your familiarity with this country’s long history of political violence?

I think we’re at a perilous moment for American democracy, and one that is really “off the map” in terms of historical context. Historians like me often get asked: “Is this moment like the 1918 flu pandemic? Or Watergate?” History can illuminate different parts of the context that we face today, but this moment is also new and unique, so there are limits to what historians can say.

I tend to be a hopeful and optimistic person. There are reasons—in the case of curbing the white power movement, specifically—to be cautiously optimistic. For example, the FBI and DHS have now said that white power terrorism represents the most urgent terrorist threat to the homeland. That’s never happened before, and turning those resources toward this problem is a huge step in the right direction.

I don’t think it’s enough, and I think all of us at every level of American society have a lot of work to do. That’s what this volume lays out.